REVIEW: Not your Aunt Eller’s “Oklahoma!”
The exclamation point is bigger than usual, taller than the rest of the title, in fact. And that’s for a good reason.
Without changing a word, but rather every word’s delivery, Director Daniel Fish’s glorious and terrifying production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn completely deconstructs this canonical and totemic masterpiece of American musical theatre.
“Country a-changin’, got to change with it!” advises cowboy Curly McLain to his sweetheart Laurey Williams.
If the years since its debut have seen this beloved, once record-breaking show slip into hackneyed obsolescence, Mr. Fish firmly takes Curly’s words to heart, brilliantly reinterpreting “Oklahoma!” for the 21st century by stripping it of its figurative corn (the literal corn, thankfully, remains) and highlighting the darker themes of violence and injustice that have always been simmering just beneath the sunny melodies and gleeful optimism of its characters.
In short: this is not your Aunt Eller’s “Oklahoma!”
Sexually charged and presented with a striking naturalism, this masterful new production, born at Bard SummerScape in 2015, reveals the hollow promise and horrifying truth behind the American penchant for proclaiming our greatness, refusing to reconcile our past, and fearlessly smiling at the future.
Mr. Fish, his cast, and collaborators piercingly bridge the gaps between the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, Broadway in 1943, and America in 2018 to deliver a visceral, unsettling, and transformative theatrical experience.
The musical has always closed in a murder papered over by a hastily arranged sham trial that exonerates our supposed hero in time for a happy ending. This time, though, that clumsy denouement—which Hammerstein whittled to three pages from the original 30—offers no happy ending, only the painful, blood-soaked reality of white male privilege, toxic masculinity, injustice, and violence that defines America’s history and present.
Stephen Sondheim once cheekily explained the plot of “Oklahoma!” as being about which guy is going to take the girl to the party. He’s not entirely wrong.
There’s not much action to the story—itself an adaption of the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” (1930) by gay cowboy Lynn Riggs—beyond that simple and quaint central question of whether charming cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Duanno) or menacing farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) will take the demure Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to the box social dance and, ultimately, win her affection and hand in marriage.
The secondary, so-called “comedic” relationship triangle concerns Ado Annie Carnes (Ali Stroker), the “girl who can’t say no”, whose hand flips between Persian salesman Ali Hakam (Michael Nathanson)—at the barrel of Annie’s father’s gun—and her longtime beau, the haplessly dim cowboy Will Parker (James Davis), seemingly based on little more than who has $50 and is presently in Annie’s company.
Overseeing these events is Laurey’s stern but loving Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), and a larger universe of “territory folk”, reduced in this production to just five ensemble members.
In the factory setting of St. Ann’s Warehouse, the audience encounters a large, ceiling-less barn box constructed of unfinished plywood walls and flooring (set by Laura Jellinek). In the hall inside, rows of seats face each other across a runway stage lined with tables, each bearing a crockpot, and a few chairs. Multicolored mylar garlands stretch atop the space, shimmering and shifting with the air—the fringe on top.
A seven piece bluegrass string band (no brass, woodwind, or percussion) is perched at one end of the stage, performing Richard Rodgers’ iconic score with a newly infused country twang by orchestrator and arranger Daniel Kluger.
The genius of this sold-out production is that everything revelatory about it was always there on paper, whether in Hammerstein’s words or Rodgers’ music; Mr. Fish not-so-merely dared to interrogate deeper than any director before, impatient with how it’s “always been done”, to construct an evening of musical theatre that I suspect feels as fresh and groundbreaking as it must have in 1943.
The “problem” with game-changing musicals is that, perversely, once they change the game, they can come to be seen as quaint, antique-even (and Hollywood’s sanitizing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, not to mention nonstop high school productions, hasn’t helped). “A Chorus Line” and “Rent” will never pack the social punch they did in 1975 and 1996, respectively. There was nothing “traditional” about “Oklahoma!” in 1943, and, thankfully, the same goes for this reexamined take.
Here, the disengaged and quiet indifference of Ms. Jones’ Laurey to the calls of her suitors give her position more depth. Has anyone ever wondered before if Laurey Williams might not actually want to marry Curly or Jud, or any man? Might she want something more? Education? A career?
Mr. Duanno’s guitar-toting Curly is no angel. He’s slick, smoldering, and sexy. His counterpart, Mr. Vaill’s Jud, calls to mind the quiet, longhaired, school-shooter type. Jud is a fact of America, a product of America. He roamed the plains in 1906, and he stalks the Internet in 2018, awash in his supposed entitlement to female affection and sexual company. We know quite Jud well. And killing him at the end of act two does not make him disappear, no matter how many cheery choruses we might sing about the wind sweeping down the plain or the waving wheat smelling sweet.
Ms. Testa’s career high performance as Aunt Eller offers the character as simultaneously hilarious and a bully whose intensity gave me chills. The breakout performance, though, is that of Ms. Stroker, whom you may recall from Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” in 2015. Using a wheelchair due to a childhood spinal cord injury, her Ado Annie simply captivates each scene she’s in with a raw horniness that ups the ante on Hammerstein’s famously witty lyrics. And the fact of her wheelchair use upends tired audience preconceptions of the power and agency wielded by people with special needs.
There is so much to unpack in this tautly realized and highly-stylized production, but I don’t want to spoil anything more than I already have. I will say, though, after attending this show, it is hard to imagine a theatre company presenting a “traditional” version of “Oklahoma!” ever again.
That might be a glib argument, myopic and steeped in presentism, but time will tell. While this production cannot claim to be definitive and might be lost on anyone who’s never seen the show before, the second-half of 2018 has shaped up to feature several marquee productions of “Oklahoma!” across the country, each marking the 75th anniversary of the show by presenting some twist to the “traditional” model.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Oklahoma!” features same-sex lead couples and other LGBTQ casting. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s “Oklahoma!” featured an all-black cast. And Theatre Under the Stars presented a large scale, outdoor production with a whopping 60 person cast in collaboration with the Houston Ballet.
A reminder: “Country a-changin’, got to change with it!”
Last season, many theatre critics and audience members engaged in some hand-wringing over the Broadway revival of “Carousel” (read my review), concerned about how the subject matter of a wife-beating leading man would play in 2018—some posing whether the show should even be done, others taking issue with Jack O’Brien’s matter of fact production.
In contrast was Bartlett Sher’s “My Fair Lady” (read my review) at Lincoln Center Theater, which fully acknowledged the moment, graphing a feminist twist onto the ending without changing a lyric or word of dialogue.
I welcome both approaches, but admit I am most excited by revivals that go even further. Next season, experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove will offer a new production of “West Side Story”—the first major production divorced from Jerome Robbins’ original vision and choreography. Upon the announcement, lyricist Stephen Sondheim remarked: “[w]hat keeps theater alive over time is reinterpretation.”
And that brings me back to Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!”. People sitting across the way from me didn’t seem to get the newly shaded ending, obliviously clapping along to the final chorus of the title song that now drips with irony. People behind me muttered their disapproval throughout, especially during the haunting and erotic modern dance dream ballet. Heck, people next to me left at intermission, deprived of the complimentary chili and cornbread.
Paying them no mind, people will say I’m in love, and it’s a charge I gladly accept. Rodgers and Hammerstein started a revolution with “Oklahoma!”. This production is a revelation.
Bottom Line: Director Daniel Fish delivers a glorious and terrifying production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, completely deconstructing this canonical and totemic masterpiece of American musical theatre by stripping it of its corn and highlighting the darker themes of violence and injustice that have always been simmering underneath. Sexually charged and presented with a striking naturalism, this masterful new production is a revelation.
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: October 7, 2018
Final Performance: November 11, 2018
Sold Out, but Today Tix runs a daily lottery for $20 rush seats